Buddha’s social teachings

Awakening, in a deep sense, is not the goal of the Buddha. Awakening is a continuing process, not a transcendent state. The Buddha was concerned with the amelioration of suffering, and awakening is a necessary process through which suffering can be recognised, diagnosed, understood and remedied or lessened. The Buddha did not retire after awakening under the Bodhi tree – as if his work was done. No, his work continued, his awakening continued, as he wandered and shared his insights and understanding. He spent over forty years teaching and learning, sharing experiences with everyone he met. Forty years of active engagement with the suffering of the world and caring for its inhabitants – working to reduce suffering wherever he found it.

In my view, it is important to counter the popular idea that Buddhism is only about personal development and self-realisation. Social and political change may be required if suffering is to be alleviated.

Walpola Rahula, is a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk. Here are some quotes by him: ‘The common belief that to follow the Buddha’s teaching one has to retire from life is a misconception. It is really an unconscious defence against practicing it.’

R: ‘The Buddha was interested in the happiness of people [….] but he knew that leading such a life [of happiness] was hard in unfavourable material and social conditions.’

R: ‘The Buddha did not take life out of the context of its social and economic background; he looked at it whole, in all its social, economic, and political aspects.’

R: ‘The Buddha is just as clear on politics, on war and peace […..] According to the Buddha there is nothing that can be called a “just war”.’

R: ‘There can be no peace or happiness for a man as long as he desires and thirsts after conquering and subjugating his neighbour. As the Buddha says: “The victor breeds hatred, and the defeated lies down in misery. He who renounces both victory and defeat is happy and peaceful.’

Mindful meditation / contemplative enquiry involves engagement with the world, being here in this world – not seeking to escape to another world or a transcendent state of mind. Being mindful we notice what arises from moment to moment and observe the everchanging relationships and processes that make up the world. In sitting meditation, we open ourselves to who we are, and how we are in the world, and we develop openness to other beings, their suffering and joy. We work to develop clarity of vision and thought, learning to see ourselves and our neighbours as we are, and to be mindful of the conditions within which we exist.

Mindful meditation helps to calm and clarify the mind, in order that we might act in an informed and compassionate manner. In this way we learn to see more clearly what needs to be done, and what we can do – to reduce suffering, and to improve the conditions (internal and external) in which we live. While much can be done by changing our view of ourselves and the world, aspects of the world may also need to be changed to improve the lives of its inhabitants.

It is only by realising how all things are dependent on each other – that the universe is a dynamic universe of everchanging relationships, interdependence and inter-penetration – that we come to feel kinship and caring. Each entity in the universe is both unique [tathata – suchness] and inseparable from the whole of existence [anatta].


Walpola Rahula, The Social Teachings of the Buddha, an essay in: The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism, ed. Fred Eppsteiner, Parallax Press, 1988.